Take 10 with... Associate Professor Paul Augustinus

18 May 2017
Paul Augustinus
Associate Professor Paul Augustinus

This week, Associate Professor Paul Augustinus from the School of Environment gives us 10 minutes of his time to discuss his  multi-disciplinary research on the use of lake sediment and other records of past environments.  

1.     Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

Reconstruction of nature, timing and drivers of past climate changes.

2.     Now explain it in ‘layman’s’ terms!

In other words, I am sort of a past climate CSI – with the crime scene being sediment records (such as lake sediments) that record these events, and culprit the climate change events that can be fingerprinted in these records. I want to know why, when and how these climate events occurred, as this helps us to understand what drove the inferred changes in past natural climate and environmental systems.

3.     Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

My research is multi-disciplinary but focusses on the use of lake sediment and other records of past environments such as glaciers and dune-fields to reconstruct how climate change has affected landscapes and biota over the past 2.6 million years of Earth's history (the Quaternary Period). Consequently it involves a mix of field and laboratory work, with much time spent planning the next field work, and on-going laboratory work (both in New Zealand and overseas) using a wide range of techniques to obtain the necessary data for the projects that I'm involved in. This, of course, also means spending time thinking about and writing the grant applications that fund the research, and supervising the postgraduate students who are always essential to their success.

4.     What do you enjoy most about your research?

My research is multi-disciplinary and the rapid developments in the various disciplines I try to span mean that there is never an opportunity to become bored. The ability to travel to some amazing places in the guise of earth science research is a privilege that I will never tire of exploiting.

5.     Tell us something that has surprised you in the course of your research.

Serendipity is an important contributor to the work I do – you never really know what you are going to get when you collect a new past climate record from a natural archive – although experience is a guide. Sometimes you are pleasantly surprised by what you uncover, especially when a newly extracted natural archive provides an unexpected twist. An example is an Antarctic research project I led with a focus on reconstructing how the thickness and extent of the ice sheet had changed over that part of the continent. A mechanical failure meant that we were delayed in an area we hadn’t planned to visit, and I found extensive exposures of an unusual deposit that is now providing a unique record of past conditions at the base of the ice sheet that would not otherwise be unobtainable.

6.     How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

Time, or lack thereof, is probably the biggest challenge and I am working hard at ways to clone myself and/or increase my efficiency. Finding time to keep with the advances in my research disciplines, as well as the time to be hands on in the lab is a real challenge. Both of these issues are best solved by having a great cohort of graduate students who challenge you and force you into the lab to check out their discoveries…

7.     What questions have emerged as a result?

How to continue to be part of capable international research teams that can leverage the range of tools that would otherwise not be available to New Zealand-based researchers. Cultivating and maintaining external collaborations is key to be able to continue to do the research that I enjoy. Participating in overseas conferences, sabbatical and other visits to collaborator labs are essential and pay significant dividends in improving the scope and quality of the research that is able to be produced.

8.     What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

Hopefully it will make a difference in some small way to how we look at what drives changes in the natural environment. After all, the management of natural systems must be built on an understanding of how they work and what drives the changes we observe. In this way the past is truly a key to understanding our present and future world.

9.     If you collaborate across the faculty or University, or even externally, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

Most of my research collaborations are with other New Zealand and overseas universities, CRIs – as well as Auckland colleagues. The multi-disciplinary nature of my research requires a range of external collaborations that take advantage of the range of skills and equipment required to undertake the research.

10.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Don’t give up when you hit a research hurdle. Keep trying – whether it be that first publication or first research grant – eventually good sense will prevail within the respective review panels and you will get published and funded.